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The United States is host to a vast collection of historical places of worship, including many churches that were erected by Spanish missionaries, the Pilgrims, and Puritans, Quakers, Native Americans, and others. Aside from their spiritual significance, churches are appealing to many types of travelers — from devotees and history buffs to art and architecture enthusiasts. Below, visit 10 of America’s oldest churches that are still standing, either in their original forms or as reconstructions.
Grace Episcopal Church, Yorktown, Virginia
Located in the riverside town of Yorktown, Grace Episcopal Church dates back to 1697 and was originally built from marl extracted from the banks of the York River. Only the walls of the church survived a fire that ravaged the city in 1814. It was then rebuilt to its present-day Greek-Revival design. During the 1700s, several of the Founding Fathers were regular attendees at the church, including Thomas Nelson, Jr. — who on August 2, 1776, was among the 56 congressional delegates who signed the Declaration of Independence. Nelson, Jr. is buried in the adjacent cemetery, along with the grave of Nelson his grandfather, the early Yorktown pioneer Thomas “Scotch Tom” Nelson.
St. Luke’s Church, Benns Church, Virginia
St. Luke’s Church is one of few remaining examples in America of the 17th-century Artisan Mannerism architectural style. Much of the brick exterior is from the original building and features elements of Romanesque, Gothic, and Jacobean designs. According to legend, the church was founded in 1632; however, archaeological examinations date it to between 1685 and 1687. Today the church operates as a museum and holds community preservation workshops. It’s open for guided tours, which allow visitors to journey through the history of the landmark and its grounds. Local volunteers work from spring to fall on the restoration of the gardens and the old tombstones of the cemetery.
Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow, Sleepy Hollow, New York
Founded in 1685, the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow is one of the oldest churches in New York State. The brick building with a Flemish-style clapboard roof sits on a 2.5-acre colonial era burial ground. Dutch merchant trader and carpenter Frederick Philipse funded the construction and built the pulpit himself. He is buried alongside family members in the church’s crypt. The church and village rose to international fame in 1820 when they featured in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” a gothic short story that recounts the folkloric tale of a headless horseman that terrorized the villagers. Fans of the paranormal flock to the village in October for reenactments of the story and ghostly encounters.
Old Indian Meeting House, Mashpee, Massachusetts
The Old Indian Meeting House lays claim to being both the oldest church on Cape Cod and the oldest Native American church in the eastern U.S. It was erected in 1684 as a place of worship for the Mashpee Wampanoag people, who had converted to Christianity after coming into contact with European settlers. However, there is some debate as to the origins of the church. The most widely accepted story is that it was raised and moved to its current location in 1717. However, some historians challenge this and believe that it was built in the late 1750s. Either way, it stands today as a prime example of religious colonial architecture on Cape Cod.
Third Haven Meeting House, Talbot County, Maryland
In the mid-1600s, Quakerism had arrived in Maryland’s Talbot County via England, and by the 1660s, at least four meetings of Quakers (also known as the Society of Friends) were recognized in the area. The Friends would gather at the homes of their members, but they soon recognized the need for a permanent meeting house for their burgeoning religious society. In 1682, the Quakers purchased land in the town of Easton to build the Third Haven Meeting House. The house is considered the oldest surviving Quaker church and continues to welcome worshippers today. Well-known English Quakers, such as the writer William Penn and physician John Fothergill, have worshipped here.
Old Ship Church, Hingham, Massachusetts
The 340-year-old Old Ship Church in Hingham, Massachusetts, is the country’s oldest building that has continuously functioned as a church. After opening in 1681, this Elizabethan Gothic-style church was used for both civic assemblies and Sunday worship. It’s also known as the Old Ship Meetinghouse, a reference to the Puritans that called their churches meetinghouses. The name "Old Ship" stems from the unique open-timber roof, which is said to resemble a ship. Many of the features, including the walls and frame, date back to the original 17th-century construction. Every February, the church is the focal point for Hingham’s Lincoln Day celebrations — members of Abraham Lincoln’s family, including his great-grandfather Samuel Lincoln, played a role in the development of Hingham.
Old Trinity Church, Church Creek, Maryland
The Old Trinity Church rests on a quiet tributary of the Little Choptank River, founded in 1671 by English settlers to accommodate their growing community on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The main part of the church measures just 38 feet long and 20 feet wide, but despite the modest quarters it hosts an active worship schedule to this day. An 1853 renovation project gave the religious landmark its Gothic appearance. Notable aspects of the interior include the original black walnut altar, a coat of arms of Queen Anne, and a copy of the King James Bible (also known as the Authorized Version). The tombstones of veterans from American wars lay scattered around the cemetery. Also interred here is Anne Ella Carroll, a lobbyist who was a respected advisor of Abraham Lincoln’s presidential cabinet.
Jamestown Church, Jamestown, Virginia
Jamestown Church has a fascinating history that traces back to the foundation of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America. It stands within the grounds of the 17th-century James Fort, which is now known as the Historic Jamestowne preservation site. A wooden church was first erected here in 1607, but it burned down a year later. Two more timber structures were built and fell into disrepair before construction of a brick church began in 1639. That church succumbed to fire damage during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, but the tower of the brick building survived, and a reconstruction of the 1639 church was added to the tower in 1907. It’s now open as a museum and displays the foundations of two of the earlier churches.
San Estevan del Rey Mission Church, Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico
Following the arrival of explorer Juan de Oñate in New Mexico in 1598, the Spanish constructed missions in an attempt to impose their Christian beliefs on the Pueblo Native Americans. In 1629, Franciscan monks established the San Estevan del Rey Mission in the Acoma Pueblo. It took 12 years to complete the adobe-style building, which features elements of both Spanish colonial and Puebloan architecture. Timber for the roof was sourced from the San Mateo Mountains and most likely carried to the village by foot. Many of the adobe structures of Acoma were also built during the same period. The mission and pueblo are now located within the Acoma reservation, where tribespeople lead tours that delve into the history and traditions of their culture.
San Miguel Chapel, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Although some historians disagree over its original construction and subsequent reconstruction, San Miguel Chapel is generally regarded as the oldest church in the U.S. The most widely accepted belief is that the Tlaxcalan peoples built this adobe chapel sometime between 1610 and 1628, under the guidance of Franciscan monks. During the Pueblo Revolt in 1680, the roof of the chapel burned and wasn’t repaired until the Spanish returned to Santa Fe. A renovation project took place in 1710 — some historians say it was a complete rebuild, while others see it as a refurbishment using the original shell. In 1955, archaeologists discovered the 17th-century floors of the church and several Tlaxcalan graves. The chapel serves as an important monument on the Santa Fe Trail. Its interior is decorated with resorted reredos and paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries.